I have been asked by a friend of faith whether God is not the one who opens and closes the womb which is biblical language meaning the one who blesses people with children or makes them unable to have children and, also, how that understanding of God as the one who gives and entrusts children to their parents fits into the view expressed in my previous post of God as NOT the author of conception by rape. My friend offered examples of women in the Bible, one of whom is Hannah, and I take my response from her story.
The Bible is not a book of doctrines. Neither is it an encyclopedia of divine knowledge – the secrets or facts of the universe and all its workings. The Bible bears witness to God’s salvific dealings with people within their specific times and places, and it bears its varied witness in terms of the views of life, nature, and the world which were accepted at the time. God meets people where they are in life and history, in terms they can understand. So, chapter one of Genesis presents creation theologically as being done by God within the framework of a three-story universe: a flat earth founded upon the nether sea and beneath a body of water supported by the vault (firmament) of the heavens, which God opens to send rain or snow. I believe this Genesis creation story offers us very important truth about God, the created order, and life including human life which is to be responsive and responsible to God. I do not believe in a three-story world with a flat earth between two great bodies of water, one below it and the other above it. The world view of the times provides the framework or setting for the message, but it is not itself the truth of God.
In terms of the source of evil (harm) that happens to people in life, the Hebrew Scriptures show some development in faith thinking over the time of the various biblical books, but for most of the history of ancient Israel, the people accepted both good (benefit) and evil (harm) from the hand of the LORD God. They acknowledged no power of evil in opposition to God. When the figure of “the Satan” appears in the later-written book of Job, he is a member of the heavenly council of God and is better understood as the accuser who argues against human righteousness than as the Medieval world’s lord of the underworld, his Satanic Majesty.
In First Samuel we read of the young woman Hannah who would become the mother of the prophet and judge Samuel. Hannah’s husband has two wives.
4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. (1Samuel 1:4-6 NRSV) [Italics mine]
On one level, “because the LORD had closed her womb” is an ancient way of saying she was unable to conceive, but on a deeper level, it is faith’s way of saying God had not given her children. Like her people, she understands children to be given by God and entrusted to their parents’ love and care so they can be brought up to adulthood in the knowledge of God.
I think that to this day a woman of faith might well ask God, “Why have you not given me a child when we want one so much?” Certainly couples who suffer repeated miscarriages are tempted to wonder why God is punishing them or, if not punishing, withholding the blessing they desire. But this way of people of faith in taking their distresses and disappointments directly to the God they trust and look to for life does not equate to a principle that all miscarriages are acts of God or all conceptions acts of God.
It simply is not true, Jesus teaches us, that everything which happens is in accordance with the will of God. Lepers did not contract leprosy because God wanted to punish them for some sin they had committed. Sickness was not God’s doing. Poverty was not God’s will for certain people. Neither success nor failure in business enterprises was determined by God. Jesus cut through the smug judgmentalism of the healthy, wealthy, and fortunate by which they declared themselves favored by God and others not so.
Being Presbyterian and knowing only too well that at times my faith tradition has turned its doctrines of God’s will, election, and predestination into what has amounted to Christianized fatalism, I find it imperative to insist that not all that happens in this world happens in accordance with the will and design of God. God does not work evil. God will work redemption in our lives. That is, God will take the harm done by sin, by chance, by nature, or by other people’s malice or carelessness and turn it to good for those who persist in seeking God’s redemption, but that redemption does not make God the author of the evil that happened. We must not make God the doer of evil. It’s not fair to God or people.
Today, in our scientific mind set, we recognize natural processes as natural, including that of conception. We say it’s just nature: if this is done, that might happen. God has set the created order in place, and it follows its own rules. Do I believe God sometimes intervenes for human benefit, to rescue us from harm? Yes, I certainly do. But evils continue as long as we live under the conditions of this present world, and as Paul puts it, the created order continues to groan under those conditions which hurt and destroy life.
Rape is a terrible evil, and I have to regard conception by rape as a further terrible evil resulting from the first violation. A woman’s body has been invaded and violated, and the invader left his foul, unwanted seed in her, and by the natural process she has conceived. Let that which is invasive and foul be removed, if possible before she knows whether it caused conception. It has no right to be there, within her body. Its presence is wrong.
But what if the woman herself chooses to redeem the evil of the conception by accepting it as if from God rather than from the man who invaded her body and did such foul evil to her? She certainly has that right, if she so chooses, but to so choose she must be allowed a choice to make. And surely if she so chooses and a child is born, the rapist should not be acknowledged legally or in any other way as the child’s father, thereby continuing to connect him to her and her child. But I think the default position of society should be that she be enabled to cleanse herself of the invasion. Otherwise, the law has sided with the rapist.
Hannah conceives and gives birth to a son. Thanks be to God! For such was her prayer, and God heard and respected her prayer. Even the most scientifically minded people of faith still pray for the children they desire and thank God when those children are born. Receiving their child as given to them by God, they recognize also that God has committed the child to their loving care to be raised as God’s own child entrusted to them. But we do not need laws that afflict the victims of rape on the false grounds of naming God as party to the rape and, indeed, the real cause of it. That’s a bum rap.